Municipal leaders serve for community, not compensation

(Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a three-part series about issues facing municipal officials in Delaware.)

DOVER — The thought never crossed Cheryl Bundek’s mind before officials approached her three years ago.

The town of Little Creek had council positions open and members wanted to gauge interest. Serving as an elected town leader wasn’t a paid position and it required attendance at roughly two-hour long monthly meetings and time spent on ongoing town projects.

She accepted, and seems ready to continue helping govern the Delaware Bay-area town unless voters decide otherwise.

“I have continued to serve the town because I like to help make the decisions to see our town grow and prosper,” the six-year Little Creek resident said.

A similar sentiment motivates Brenda Richards, a 20-year resident of Woodside, who became the town’s secretary in 2014.

The municipality had been without a secretary for two decades and the mayor was handling all town duties when she volunteered.

“I had experience as secretary for other organizations and felt I could assist the mayor in some of the duties he was handling,” Ms. Richards said.

“The idea of being able to serve my town motivates me to continue and to help keep the residents informed on what is going on behind the scenes of running our town.”

Woodside council positions are all voluntary and Ms. Richards estimates she spends 10 to 15 hours on town duties weekly. She is reimbursed for money spent on supplies, such as stamps, mass mailings, etc., upon request.

As for ending her service, she said, “I will keep this position until someone runs against me in the town election or I move out of town or die.”

Ms. Richards and Ms. Bundek are among a deep pool of Delaware residents motivated to serve the communities where they live and willing to take whatever compensation, if any, is paid for their time and efforts.

Making $25 per council meeting isn’t the motivation for Smyrna’s W.D. Pressley to serve. He said he spends “many hours driving around town, seeing what’s going on, averaging 20 hours per month on meetings.”

“I do it because I live here with my family and like to see the town grow.”

When Stacy Hoffer arrived in Little Creek with her husband four years ago, she came with the belief that “everyone should become involved in their community.

“This was a way I could not only get to know my neighbors but also give back to the town and help build a better neighborhood,” she said of her service on town council. “If you’re not involved in building change and supporting growth, you have no right to complain when things aren’t the want you would like them to be.”

Issues lead to leadership

A lifelong Dover resident, Robin R. Christiansen was elected to city council in 1983 and has continued to serve since, highlighted by his election as the Capital City’s mayor in 2014.

His first term ends this year, but Mr. Christiansen is unopposed and will not face an opponent in the city’s April election.

In fact, of the five seats up for election in Dover, only one hosts a race and the city pays its leaders. City Council members receive $7,416 annually and council president gets $8,652.

As mayor, Mr. Christiansen makes around $42,000 annually.

“While it is important to be compensated for your time, it is not the reason I chose to serve,” he said. “However, it allows some compensation for the hours that must be put in to do the job the way it must be done.”

He estimates he spends an average of 55 to 60 hours weekly attending community events, handling constituent concerns, office appointments and riding around the city checking roads, street lights, etc. Other meetings come up as well, such as chamber of commerce and Kent County Tourism events.

His foray into politics began nearly 40 years ago when Mr. Christiansen became interested in a building project issue in his Fairview neighborhood.

“My friends and neighbors asked me to run for council and thus began my continued public service,” he said. “It is my belief — as my father told me — ‘It is our responsibility to make where we live a little bit better than what we found it.’

“His motto is the motto of me and my family, ‘Service to others.’ “

Matt Lindell arrived to Dover city council after a special election in May 2017, and will continue as he is unopposed for the April election.

“There were issues that I felt were not being addressed or being addressed effectively; and I felt that my skill set and experiences could add value to the community and its elected body to improve upon those issues,” he said.

Like every elected official who responded, Mr. Lindell said the financial compensation was unimportant compared to the opportunity to serve.

“I use my paycheck to donate to organizations or to individuals trying to help others within the community,” he said.

Houston Mayor Angelo Abbate said he wouldn’t even do the job if it was a paid position. He spends 20 to 60 hours a month on town duties, he said, “to help keep (the) small town the way it’s always been.”

‘Small town existence’

Preserving a town’s atmosphere is a common goal noted by those who serve.

After joining Magnolia’s government on the planning commission in 2008, Mayor James Frazier first made a bid for council because he said he wanted to “improve our small town existence.”

Mr. Frazier estimates he spends about five to 10 hours weekly on the job and receives no pay.

Cheswold Vice Mayor Larence Kirby began his first term in 2016 after his retirement from Air Force active duty.

“I wanted to use my leadership skills in a local capacity,” he said. “I believe it is important to be a voice for others while attempting to make positive community impacts. I would see things that needed to be done locally and decided town council would help ‘make it happen.’”

Unpaid, Mr. Kirby estimates an average of four hours weekly are spent reviewing documents, attending state and county meetings and talking to citizens.

Valerie M. Forbes was first elected to Smyrna town council in 2006 and has served four terms. She said her children motivated her service back then.

“I had decided Smyrna was my home and I wanted to make a difference, or at least try to,” said the 20-year resident of the northern Kent County town. “I wanted my children to also call Smyrna home and to raise their children here.

“Now, my grandchildren keep me motivated. They are the future and I want them to know that many of us worked hard — and took a lot of heat, at times — to make Smyrna a better place and somewhere for them to one day call home.”

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